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Friday, March 26, 1999 Published at 18:20 GMT

World: Europe

Tunnel inferno 'warning ignored'

Firefighters from three countries battled the blaze

Rescue services in France have accused the company that runs the Mont Blanc road tunnel of ignoring warnings about inadequate safety precautions in the tunnel.

Paris Correspondent Stephen Jessel: "Dispute between fire service and tunnel company"
The accusation came after at least 35 people died in a blaze which engulfed vehicles in the tunnel on Wednesday. It took two days to bring it under control.

Rescuers said the tunnel turned into an inferno, melting the asphalt and causing tyres to explode and part of the concrete casing of the tunnel to collapse.

The French authorities said the fire trapped around 40 vehicles in dense, poisonous smoke and temperatures of up to 1,000C.

The fire service said it warned the Mont Blanc Tunnel Company last year about how difficult it would be to carry out a major rescue operation.

Hugh Schofield reports: "A simple fuel leak"
The fire service for Haute Savoie district, where the tunnel has its French entry point, said it had raised concerns about evacuating the public and sending help into the tunnel.

The company denies receiving any request to amend safety procedures and says it has not seen the document referred to by the fire service.

Poisonous smoke

Peter Hunt: Questions are being raised about the adequacy of safety procedures
The French authorities said the fire trapped around 40 vehicles in dense, poisonous smoke and temperatures of up to 1,000C.

Rescuers said the tunnel, linking France and Italy, turned into an inferno, melting the asphalt and causing tyres to explode and part of the concrete casing of the tunnel to collapse.

[ image: Exhausted firefighters battled for 30 hours]
Exhausted firefighters battled for 30 hours
The fire started on a Belgian-registered food truck carrying flour and margarine through the tunnel, which cuts beneath western Europe's highest mountain.

Emergency teams from Italy, France and Switzerland brought the flames under control on Friday after struggling for more than 30 hours.

The tunnel will remain closed for several weeks.

French volunteer fireman Paul Colombo explains the difficulties faced by the rescuers
One firefighter died after suffering a heart attack due to smoke inhalation. His funeral service is due to take place on Saturday.

An Italian tunnel employee, Pierlucio Tinazzi, 33, also died in the blaze. He saved 10 people, making repeated trips into the tunnel on his motorcycle, before succumbing to the fire.

Some 24 people were injured on the French side of the tunnel, including firefighters and tunnel company employees, There were 10 further casualties on the Italian side.

Safety probe

French Transportation Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot has ordered an investigation into why security equipment and procedures failed to prevent the disaster.

Fire officials said Friday that all except two or three of the victims were found not in the tunnel's safety bunkers, but at the wheels of their cars - indicating they did not have time to escape before being overcome by the smoke and fumes.

[ image: The tunnel will be closed for weeks]
The tunnel will be closed for weeks
Road tunnel operators have rejected criticism, saying that surveillance cameras, pressurised emergency shelters and ventilation systems were working efficiently.

The state attorney at Bonneville in the Haute-Savoie district of the French Alps has opened a manslaughter inquiry in order to establish the causes and responsibility for the blaze.

The route was used by some 766,000 heavy goods vehicles in 1998.

The tunnel fire is the second disaster to hit the French Chamonix region in recent weeks, after avalanches swept through the Alps.

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